Dominic Raab has criticised Labour MP Diane Abbott for defending Extinction Rebellion’s blockade of national newspaper printers on Friday and Saturday.
The foreign secretary said Abbott was “perverse” to compare the climate activist campaigners to suffragettes.
Abbott on Sunday defended Extinction Rebellion’s actions, which disrupted the distribution of several newspapers on Saturday, saying the group had employed “legal tactics”.
She told Sky News: “I think it's important to remind ourselves that direct actions, which is what those actions were, are actually legal.
“These are legal tactics and we don't want to talk as if it’s not illegal to take direct actions because direct action has been legal since the time of the suffragettes.
“They are protesters and activists in the tradition of the suffragettes and the hunger marchers of the 1930s.”
More than 100 demonstrators used vehicles and bamboo lock-ons to block roads outside two newsprinters – one at Broxbourne in Hertfordshire, the other at Knowsley near Liverpool – on Friday evening.
Both protests continued until Saturday afternoon.
Abbott’s comments came as Merseyside Police on Sunday said they had charged 26 people with aggravated trespass after the Knowsley demonstration.
They are due to appear at Liverpool and Knowsley Magistrates’ Court and St Helens Magistrates’ Court on January 8 and 13 next year.
Hertfordshire Police said its officers had taken 50 people into custody.
Raab told Sky News on Sunday: “The idea that it is right to damage property or to intervene with free press in the name of progressive protests is perverse.
“I respect the right of peaceful protests but hijacking that with a militant agenda to disrupt the very heart of democratic debate through free media is just totally wrong and law enforcement action should be taken to preserve our wider freedoms, and they do include a free media.”
The blockades prevented delivery vans from leaving presses that publish the Rupert Murdoch-owned News Corp titles The Sun, The Times, The Sun On Sunday and The Sunday Times, as well as The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Mail and Mail On Sunday.
Extinction Rebellion apologised to newsagents for the disruption but said it would not apologise to Murdoch, calling on him to “stop suppressing the truth about the climate crisis and profiting from the division your papers create”.
Government sources told the PA news agency that home secretary Priti Patel wanted to take a “fresh look” at how Extinction Rebellion is classified under law after the protests, which Boris Johnson deemed “completely unacceptable”.
"I fear when you damage the free press, that is shooting yourself in the foot."
In response to Extinction Rebellion's protests outside printworks, @EdwardJDavey says it was not a "good message" to stop people from reading David Attenborough,#Ridge: https://t.co/NZtlQe2tCY pic.twitter.com/prkWZ2qBKF
— Sophy Ridge on Sunday (@RidgeOnSunday) September 6, 2020
Reacting to the blockade on Twitter, Patel said on Saturday: “This morning people across the country will be prevented from reading their newspaper because of the actions of Extinction Rebellion.
“This attack on our free press, society and democracy is completely unacceptable.”
A review could lead to Extinction Rebellion being treated as an organised crime group, sources said, as part of a clampdown on its activities, which have included bringing cities across the UK to a standstill by forming human barriers along major roads and by disrupting public transport.
Under additional proposals, Parliament, courts and the press could be given special status in regard to the key role they play in democracy, with the potential for police to be handed beefed-up powers to stop demonstrators entering designated areas outside such premises.
“It would be illegal to stop MPs going to vote or judges getting to court and it would also protect a free press,” a government source told PA.
This morning people across the country will be prevented from reading their newspaper because of the actions of Extinction Rebellion.
This attack on our free press, society and democracy is completely unacceptable. https://t.co/3DfasjD6sS
— Priti Patel (@pritipatel) September 5, 2020
Abbott’s comments came a day after MPs from across the political spectrum had criticised the blockades.
Communities secretary Robert Jenrick tweeted: “A good day to #buyanewspaper. A free press matters to all of us who value a free society. They mustn’t be silenced by an intolerant minority.”
Emily Thornberry, Labour’s shadow international trade secretary, told Times Radio: “This is very worrying and I don’t really know what it is that is expected to be achieved.
“I know that for many older listeners it’s very much part of their daily life, getting their paper delivered in the morning, and I just think it’s wrong.”
Speaking to the same radio station, Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood claimed Extinction Rebellion had “lost sight... of how to campaign” on a “very important issue”.